Week after week, we are bombarded with news about nationalist elections (e.g., Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Poland), total political insulation and outright racist rhetoric in electorate campaigns (Brexit, Trump, etc.), destroyed Roma camps and deported immigrants (Italy, France, Slovakia, etc.), not to mention homophobic, political, ethnic or religiously inspired terrorism (Orlando, Istanbul, Middle East, etc.).
All across the globe, collective forms of hatred and resulting intergroup violence are on the rise and, arguably, the situation seems only to worsen—quite contrary to Stephen Pinker’s claim (see his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2012). Accordingly, the dialectics of in-group affiliation and out-group aversion seems all-too prevalent.
But what role do collective emotions, and especially their seemingly different temporal dynamics, play in this? Why does the so-called collective ‘welcome’-mood towards refugees in Germany or Austria sets in with tens of thousands of volunteers helping refugees at train stations from Vienna to Hamburg, almost immediately the day after the famous picture of a name- and faceless, drowned young Syrian boy, lying dead on the shores of the Mediterranean. And why does it wane into nothingness or, far worse, leads to dozens of assaulted and burning asylum-seekers centers (e.g., in Germany), just a couple of weeks later?
These are the questions that kept—and still keep—me thinking, and that I hope, at least partially, to answer by developing an account of the different dynamics of positive and negative collective emotions.
Here is the abstract of a presentation that I recently gave on that topic at the Annual Conference of the European Society for the Philosophy of Emotions (ESPPE) in Athens, and which shall give you an initial idea of my forthcoming paper:
Emotions are not spotlight affaires but rather develop, intensify or decrease or change over time. Some argue that emotions are fast-tracking cognitions (Kahneman 2011) or short-lived concerns (Ben-Ze’ev 2010). In any case, temporality is built into the very nature of emotions and a key to understanding their function. To be sure, there is hardly anyone, be it an affective scientist, a philosopher of emotion or a layperson who would contest this. Yet, although there is a large body of empirical and theoretical work on various dynamics of emotions (e.g., cognitive feedback-effects, appraisal changes, evolutionary adaptation; cf. Kuppens 2015), the very nature of the temporality of emotions has hardly been studied (see, however, Frijda 2007). This desideratum is all the more salient when it comes to collective, political and intergroup emotions—notwithstanding a rapidly increasing interest on such social forms of affectivity (Goodwin et al. 2001; Flam 2005; von Scheve & Salmela 2012; Goodwin et al. 2001; Sullivan 2015; Parkinson & Manstead 2015). There are only very few recent exceptions from social-psychology exploring the temporal dynamics of emotions in social (Mesquita & Boiger 2014) or inter-group interactions (Smith & Mackie 2015).
Against this background, I address the issue of the temporal dynamics distinctive of collective emotions. Specifically, I focus on those intergroup and political emotions in which the role of social identification with one’s own group or in-group/out-group divides play a central role. The guiding research question I shall pursue concerns a certain deep asymmetry in the temporal structure when it comes to positively charged or group-cohesive affective collective phenomena, on the one hand (e.g., collective cheering, feelings of solidarity, sympathetic concern, pride, or patriotisms), and negative, out-group directed emotions, on the other hand (nationalism, political or ethnic hatred, etc.).
It seems that whereas those positive collective emotions are usually object- or situation-focused, fast-changing and share their typical short-livedness with their individual counterparts, negative collective emotions are, indeed to the detriment of intergroup divides, intentionally diffuse, relatively stable, little dynamic and diachronically robust in nature. But why are certain collective emotions more or less malleable, more or less inert, and which, when and why do they solidify? Drawing on the ingenious phenomenological analysis of Aurel Kolnai of the specific intentionality of negative emotions and, in particular, of hatred (Kolnai 1935/2007), as well as the phenomenological concepts of ‘habitualization’ and ‘sedimentation’ (e.g., Walther 1932, Husserl 1975), and the work of the feminist phenomenologist Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotions (Ahmed 2014), I will argue that negative collective emotions display a habitual form of intentional ‘position-taking’ that may explain their inflexibility and diachronic robustness. Moreover, I shall show that there is a co-constitutional or dialectic process going on between in-group/out-group divides and certain collective emotions, such as collective hatred.